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cast: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, Viktor Klimenko, Rain Tolk, and Kari Ketonen
director: Antti-Jussi Annila
80 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Fusion Media DVD Region 2
review by Paul Higson
This is set in 1595, in settling boundaries at the end of a 25-year war. A royal border commission, comprising of representatives of the Emperor of
Russia and the King of Sweden, are mapping out the territories to the north of their respective countries. The cartographer is Knut Spore (Tommi Eronen),
who, as a result of his age and education, has missed out on active participation in the fighting, and it is his hope that his beautiful maps with
the inclusion of an uncharted swamp will culminate in a place at the University of Stockholm as a teacher of geography.
His brother, on the other hand, also on the mission, is cavalry master Errik Spore (Ville Virtanen), who entered the war at 16 and, now 41, self-regards
himself an old man and is branded worse than that by the accompanying senior Russian officer, Semensky. Provoked and defending his men from the cavalry
master's taunts, Semensky (Viktor Klimento) mocks Spore, calling him an "invalid who has lived too long."
Errik's eyesight is failing him and the well-placed Knut has provided him with a pair of spectacles that to the majority of people are a mysterious
alien apparatus perched on his nose. Errik is ungrateful, blaming the spectacles for his worsening sight, theorising that his reliance on the glasses
has debilitated him all the more; immediacy suppressing his warrior's natural desire to fight the condition and see the ailment in retreat. The glasses
allow him to continue to see his crimes, perhaps even help fuel them, and the film opens on his 73rd murder in the name of his country. Semensky accuses
Errik of fearing peacetime as he would then have no excuse for his acts of atrocity.
Accompanying the Spore brothers and Semensky are two more Russian officers, Captain Musko (Kari Ketonen), who initially feigns an ability to understand
his opposite's language in order to avoid having to respond to Errik's provocations, and Ivan Rogosin (Rain Tolk), initially unfazed, but we later learn
the extent of his services to his country when Semensky recalls that he was only ten years of age when he denounced his own mother, which led her to
be the first witch to be burned in Vyborg Square.
Before leaving on their final mapping exercise, Knut oversees the swearing in of allegiance by peasants
to the Swedish-Russian alliance. The oath promises their soul to the two countries, to the territories whose borders are being decided, and the team
of five are under a like oath and literal threat to the land as they discover an accursed community at the dead centre of the swamp. They find themselves
in territory they cannot control, where the compass is uncooperative, and the landscape struck sickly hue of cobalt blue and algae green, while the
waters contain spectral hints of the cavalryman's victims.
The elders return a population count of 73, the number which tallies with the cavalryman's killing score. He tells his brother that he will not seek
redemption over his deeds, that it is too late for him to find contrition, and that his only wish is to get his brother safely home. Strange occurrences
befall the village, and there is a rectangular structure with a single door into darkness sitting in the middle of a pool of water with a sinister
pull on certain members of the group.
The villagers are all elderly, but for a boy, who is not a boy at all but a lonely girl, the only child in the village, given to amusing herself by
acting like a boy, becoming her male counterpart. Born as the people fled their original war-torn villages, the 73 settled in the village, and the
girl had been baptised in the waters of the ominous sauna, possibly confirming the curse on the people. The village had been discovered, previously
built by Russian monks, whose artefacts and history are collected in a single building, storage for mostly faceless iconography.
Their presence is the trigger for events that have been long held off even belaying the death of anybody in the village who instead grow older and
rot in their hospital beds. The supernatural terror jumps into gear and they demand answers from one of the village elders. But instead they make
the elder vulnerable to the lurking horrors and, rather than see or speak of them again, he stabs out his own eyes. Spore is desperate to make amends
and, as the villagers are whisked away by the evil into the sauna, he aims to place the terrified girl safely outside of its monstrous reach. And he
has already decided that he can do this only with an act of personal sacrifice in distracting the evil.
The medieval horror film remains an obscure backdrop, though there has been a recent rise in the subgenre, particular in Britain with Alberto Sciamma's
Anazapta, and Chris Smith's The Black Death. This Swedish-Finnish production, while wearing its true horror sensibilities on its chest,
in the prose dialogue, grubby detail and unhurried pace, also radiates a wider art house aura, with curtseys to Bergman and Tarkovsky. The art horror
blend is a bubbling and bitter brew, if less than epic. Even when alfresco, the film is claustrophobic, but the results are small-scale, and the
unassailable evil, though cogent and cloying, is not ultimately felt. This is partly because the viewer has difficulty placing themselves in the
situation because, ironically, the characters, situation and era are often too well drawn; it is difficult becoming a participant in the adventure
when there characters are too precisely not the viewer.
The film is also over before you know it. I repeat, I am grateful to filmmakers for increasingly bringing in their films under 90 minutes and not
unnecessarily hanging around, but perhaps Evil Rising (aka: Sauna), could have benefited from another 10 minutes? It is in the attempts
to disrupt expectation that it slyly undoes itself (similarly a fault in Psalm 21
from the same neck of the woods). Knut has been introduced in too much detail for his face to last be seen 60 minutes in. Knut is present but first
his face is unseen, then his voice his lost; dwindling him next to a passing shadow, until completely ebbed out of the picture. The film is intrinsic
in its details, eccentricities and imagination, and the production values, particularly the costume and soundtrack, are superb, but - having seen it
twice now - as atmospheric as it is, that threat does not transfer itself outwardly to the viewer.
Evil Rising is a successful entertainment but curiously less than thrilling. If aiming to be a full-on horror, which one suspects it is, then
it fails to unnerve. We are interested in the characters but do not care for them and, therefore, are not ultimately concerned by their fate. A pity,
then, as this is a serious horror film which is not shy of intelligence or quality, but just misses out on actually being frightening.